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What Is an Axolotl?

By Anna Harrison
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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An axolotl is an amazing amphibian with fascinating regenerative abilities. A type of neotenic mole salamander, it is also known as the ajolote salamander. Its species name is Ambystoma mexicanum, and it is commonly called a Mexican walking fish, although it is not a fish at all. Axolotls are actually very unusual salamanders with equally unique eating habits. They can grow quite large and may be several different colors.

The axolotl lives in water, but is descended from the land salamander. Many scientists believe that the axolotl is actually an offshoot species of the tiger salamander, because it has been known to sometimes interbreed with this species. It is seen as a freak of nature by biologists, who tend to consider it to have moved backward in evolution.

The Mexican walking fish is unique in that it remains in a larval state called neoteny even in adulthood. While most amphibians quickly metamorphose from egg to larvae to adult state, these gruesome looking creatures retain their fins and gills throughout their lives. They also do not develop the bulging eyes of other mature salamanders.

This amphibian grows much larger than the small salamanders most of us are familiar with. At maturity, they average between 9 and 10 inches (23 to 25 cm) in length, though they have been known to reach as much as 17 inches (43 cm). It takes them about 18 months to reach their full size. Axolotls may be several colors, including white, brown, and nearly black. They may also be piebald, which is a mottled mix of colors.

This weird salamander is carnivorous and, like a snake, swallows its food whole. It uses its teeth to tightly grip its meal, rather than to pierce or tear. This means that whatever it catches must be small enough to fit into its wide mouth. Axolotls are fond of different types of worms and larvae as well as tiny brine shrimp.

Axolotls are renowned for their regenerative and healing capabilities and have been studied extensively for this reason. They are able to regrow missing limbs and even portions of their spines or brains within just a few weeks. There are countless axolotls being studied in laboratories, which has helped to keep this species from extinction.

While axolotls are plentiful in captivity due to their importance in research, they are an endangered species in their natural habitat. They originated in Lake Chalco and Lake Xochimilco, which used to be under what is now Mexico City. Lake Chalco no longer exists and Lake Xochimilco is now only lagoons and canals. As a result of their habitat disappearing, the axolotl is difficult to find in the wild.

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